Cruz Chronicles The Story Of The Endangered Yanomami

In 1994, Brazilian born photographer Valdir Cruz had been working outside his country for more than 15 years. Then, in New York City he met Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, shaman and headman of Demini-teri, a Yanomami village in northern Brazil near the Venezuela border. The Yanomami(o) Indians are the largest indigenous group of South Americans who still live largely according to traditional ways. Hunters and gatherers, they number some 26,000 tribesmen. Some believe they are descendants of the second wave of Paleo-Indians who migrated south over’ the Bering land bridge as long as 20 centuries ago.

A threatened people

Kopenawa had come to the States to deliver a message to the United Nations. The message was that in recent years, illegal gold miners, loggers, professional hunters and other outsiders had encroached on his people’s homeland, threatening their livelihood, bringing disease and causing them to adopt questionable modern techniques and ignore important aspects of their ancient culture. His people were dying physically and spiritually.

Kopenawa was referring to the fact that mercury left in the waters by the gold miners, and tuberculosis and hepatitis brought in by outsiders – along with the malaria endemic to the region – were poisoning the Yanomami. With little access to medicine, they were dying in greater numbers than ever before. His people were incorporating plastic sheeting into their dwelling places, trapping deadly heat and humidity inside. Drug dealers were desecrating tribal land. Such developments were causing the Yanomami to neglect aspects of their food and other culture and to lose their dignity.

Cruz ventures into the rain forest

Kopenawa’s tragic tale revitalized Cruz’s interest in his native land. He promised the shaman he would visit the Yanomami. A year later, he traveled for days from Caracas, Venezuela, across the Brazilian border to the Yanomami’s home state of Roraima to observe and photograph them.

Back in New York, Cruz applied for a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Two years later, in August 1996, he went again to the Amazon rain forest territory, this time with American writer Patrick Tierney and Brazilian microscopist Marinho de Souza, to document reports of malaria and provide help where possible.

In November 1996, Cruz made a third trip. With partial funding from the Guggenheim Foundation and help from Leica Camera and Kodak, he aided healthcare professionals while completing his reportage on the Yanomami. In all, Cruz spent eight months in the rain forest, producing images that have appeared in U.S. and South American journals, individual and group exhibitions, permanent collections, documentaries and books. As Cruz has said, the rain forest became “all I live, all I eat, all I drink.” Now, powerHouse Books is publishing his Faces of the Rain forest (see page 30), devoted to the Yanomami.
Working in the dim light of these South American Indians’ homeland, Cruz details their daily lives. He catches them hunting, celebrating, mourning and at repose. He shows many cheerful moments, but as Randy Kennedy has said in The New York Times: For anyone looking at Valdir Cruz’s beautiful, silvery photographs of the remote Indians of the Amazon rain forests, it is difficult to shake the notion that they are images of ghosts populating ghost towns…

A Leica enthusiast

Cruz works with a Leica MG and 35mm lens. “Leica is a very quiet camera,” he observes. It allowed me to work among the Yanomami basically invisibly.” Thus, while preserving much of the Yanomami culture, unsparingly and with respect Cruz has been able to hint at the unsettling death to come.